January 19, 2015 by Alex Johannigman
On March 6th, 1857, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Dred Scott v Sandford, declaring that African Americans, whether slave or free, could not be granted the rights of American citizens because they were believed to be less than human. It was a decision that was ruled with a 7-2 majority, and even had the support of the current president, James Buchanan.
It was held that, since the white man did not recognize them as having such rights, they didn’t have them. The implication was that Africans were property—things that white persons had the “choice” to buy and sell. In contrast, whites did “qualify,” so government protected their natural rights.
It is widely regarded as one of the worst decisions ever made in the history of the Supreme Court, and was effectively overturned by the civil rights act of 1866 and the 14th amendment just years later.
That decision is important because today we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, an outspoken leader of the African-American civil rights movement of the 1960s which fought for equality between races within the United States. Dr. King’s ideals flew in direct opposition to the beliefs that had once been ruled as just by the highest court in our country.
This week, we also remember the anniversary of another Supreme Court decision which ruled that a certain class of people could not be given the same rights as others, Roe v Wade. On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that while a person is still in his or her mother’s womb, he or she doesn’t have the rights that all other American citizens are given, particularly the right to life. The unborn were seen as the “property” of their mothers, that they could keep or discard as they pleased. The rights of adults were viewed as more valuable than the rights of their unborn children.
Those who have given up hope on restoring legal rights to the unborn because the Supreme Court already made a decision about it need to remember that the Supreme Court has gotten it wrong before. They’ve ruled against equality and civil rights for all in the past, and we as a people through the actions of Congress voiced our dissenting opinion and changed the law to recognize basic human rights for all. It has happened before, and it can and will happen again. At risk of sounding really cheesy, I’ll say that “I have a dream” that one day we will look back at Roe v Wade and the decades that followed it the same way that we look back at Dred Scott v Sandford, as an ugly blemish in our nation’s history that we overcame when we as a people recognized that all people are created equally with equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness regardless of age, race, religion, physical or mental handicaps, wealth, or educational background.
Finally, this wouldn’t be an acceptable MLK Day post if I didn’t include a quote or two from Dr. King that have inspired me further to stand for right, stand for truth, and stand for justice:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
“In the final analysis, you do right not to avoid hell. If you’re doing right merely to keep from going to something that traditional theology has called hell then you aren’t doing right. If you do right merely to go to a condition that theologians have called heaven, you aren’t doing right. If you are doing right to avoid pain and to achieve happiness and pleasure then you aren’t doing right. Ultimately you must do right because it’s right to do right. And you got to say “But if not.” You must love ultimately because it’s lovely to love. You must be just because it’s right to be just. You must be honest because it’s right to be honest. This is what this text is saying more than anything else. And finally, you must do it because it has gripped you so much that you are willing to die for it if necessary. And I say to you this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live. You may be 38 years old as I happen to be, and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause–and you refuse to do it because you are afraid; you refuse to do it because you want to live longer; you’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you’re afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house, and so you refuse to take the stand. Well you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90! And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right, you died when you refused to stand up for truth, you died when you refused to stand up for justice.”